An attractive advertisement appeared in the Collection for Husbandry and Trade Improvement, a London periodical, on July 19th, 1695. The trade was an offer to “Willingly match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman, who has a fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts”; the husbandry involved was theoretically that of “A gentleman about 30 Years of Age, who says He has a Very Good Estate”; the trade was an offer to “Willingly match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman, that has a fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts.”
The personal ad evolved into a staple of the newspaper industry, where it has remained for decades. Announcements of marital and other availability have migrated to the internet, much like so much else in the field. The world’s lonely hearts have significantly benefited from the move. In America, personal advertisements have never accounted for more than 1% of marriages. Today, dating sites and applications account for about a sixth of all first meetings that lead to marriage; roughly the same percentage of first meetings lead to marriage in venues that aren’t dedicated to such matters.
By 2010, the internet had surpassed churches, neighborhoods, classrooms, and workplaces as the most popular places for Americans to find partners of the opposite sex. Since then, the number of bars and restaurants has decreased (see chart). The disparity is much more pronounced for those looking for same-sex partners. For same-sex pairings, whether casual or more serious, the internet is the primary meeting place: 70% of same-sex relationships begin online. Reuben Thomas, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, observes, “There is a very significant change in how people find their partners.” “It’s unheard of.”
For most of human history, the choice of life partner was restricted by class, geography, and parental decree. Those constraints were weakened in the 19th and 20th centuries, at least in the West. The bicycle, like city life, greatly expanded the opportunities open to young people. People were released from their villages, but they faced new challenges: finding out who was involved, who wasn’t, and who would be if they knew you were.
A platform called match.com was promising to help people answer specific questions in 1995, less than a year after Netscape introduced the first widely used browser. Online dating began with gay men and geeks, as befitting a technology built in the San Francisco Bay area. Still, it quickly spread, becoming especially useful for people seeking a way back into the dating world after the end of a long-term relationship. Couples who met via the internet became commonplace.
These services have moved from the desktop to the phones that young people have grown within the 2010s. Tinder, a company founded in 2013, implemented the brilliantly easy concept of showing people potential partners and making them swipe right for “yes” and left for “no”; when two people lifted right on each other’s images, they were put in touch. It was a big success.
Phone-based services are more immediate, intimate, and accessible than their keyboard-based counterparts. It is more urgent because they can be used on the fly to locate someone right here, right now, rather than planning potential meetings or chatting at a distance. More personal, since the phone is more intimate than the keyboard, camera-ready, and always with you. For the exact cause, it’s more accessible. Many people nowadays enjoy swiping left or right on public transportation while gossiping about upcoming matches with their colleagues. Over WhatsApp and iMessage, screenshots of potential partners are passed back and forth. Dating is no longer limited to fixed times and locations. It can now take place anytime and at any time.
It’s just the power to charm.
Online dating is not being adopted at the same pace or in the same way in all countries and social groups. The Americans are leading the way, while the Germans are trailing behind. It has moved online in India, which has long had a complicated offline market for arranged marriages across religious and caste lines. Last year, matrimony.com raised 500 crore rupees ($70 million) in an unusual Indian tech-sector IPO to help it target the marriage market.
In countries where parents still have a stronghold on marriage, today’s apps include a previously unavailable option: casual dating. Yu Wang, the CEO of Tantan, a dating app established in 2015 and is now one of China’s most famous, claims that the country’s offline dating culture is virtually non-existent. “You’re a scoundrel if you approach someone you don’t meet and start flirting with them,” he says. On Tantan, though, “you don’t reveal yourself, there’s no risk of rejection, and you can’t lose face.” Tantan had 20 million users and had developed 10 million couples as of February, according to Mr. Wang, who adds, “That’s a big impact on society.”
Unfortunately, assessing the extent of importance is difficult. The companies collecting the data regard a lot of it as confidential information. Globally, the company is worth $4.6 billion, and it is rising rapidly and intensely competitive. Match Group, which owns Tinder, the original match.com, and 40 other companies, made $1.3 billion in sales in 2017, which is comparable to the revenue of American condom sellers. Tinder has 3.8 million paying customers, and a number of its creators and early employees are suing Match, alleging that the company was purposefully undervalued to prevent large payouts.
While Tinder has a strong lead, there are rivals in the United States, such as Bumble, which one of Tinder’s founders established after he left the business, and around the world, both attempting to sell themselves on some level sophistication. Facebook is now entering the market. Many dating apps also allow users to connect their Facebook accounts to show who they are; a dating app that knew everything that Facebook knew would have a significant advantage if it could use it effectively—and if users did not object in the post-Cambridge Analytica environment. None of the businesses want to show what secret data sauce they use in their products.
When data is available, which is mainly from national surveys, sociologists like Mr. Thomas have discovered that online dating, on average, leads to better matches—presumably because it provides a much larger pool of potential partners.
The advantages are most evident for people whose interests make seeking potential partners difficult, whether due to social or physical isolation. Same-sex dating is a beneficiary since it exists in a smaller pool than heterosexual dating and is illegal or socially inappropriate in many places. Seeking same-sex partners online is also both better and more convenient than doing so in person.
Thus, those with similar, and often very specialized, views on what makes for good sex, or indeed on pretty much anything else, will benefit from the internet. There are dating platforms for several esoteric tastes and sites where you can find multiple partners at once. Websites are dedicated to women who want a man to father a child with them without being romantically involved. Services are available for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Trump backers, educated citizens, and vegans. BikerKiss (“Two wheels, two hearts, one road”), FarmersOnly (“Single in the Country”), and Ugly Bug Ball (“Dating for the aesthetically average”) are among the dating apps available.
It’s unclear how much satisfaction these specific granularity possibilities have brought. However, there are some estimates for the entire sector. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago found in a 2013 study that marriages that began online were less likely to end in divorce and were correlated with higher levels of satisfaction than marriages that began offline: the difference was not large, but it was statistically important. Couples who met online were also marginally happier with their marriage than those who met offline, by a fifth of a point on a seven-point scale. If a third or more of marriages in America beginning online, that means nearly a million people in the United States, as well as millions more around the world, have found happier marriages as a result of the internet.
These results are consistent with those of Stanford University’s Mr. Thomas, and Michael Rosenfeld, who use data from GfK’s How Couples Meet and Stay Together study, which is conducted every few years. Again, married people who met their partner online had marginally better relationship satisfaction than those who met offline. They were less likely to have broken up after a year of marriage. Mr. Rosenfeld has also shown that heterosexual relationships that begin online and progress to marriage do so more quickly than those that start offline and progress to marriage.
This is fair. People meet those who are similar to them in different ways offline, such as those who know the same people and work in the same places. They can meet people online who are not like them in those respects but who are like them in other ways, which might be more critical. According to Jess Carbino, Bumble’s in-house sociologist, you should meet people who aren’t like you and choose those who are.
Religious views are one area in which people want to be in touch with others they encounter online. Training and age play a significant role, albeit in an asymmetric way. The University of Michigan’s Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman used messaging data from one of the big dating apps (they weren’t allowed to say which) to rate data based on other users’ propensity to message them a study published in Science Advances on August 8th. Female desirability peaks at 18 and then plummets with age, according to the report. Male desirability begins low, increases until about 50, and then steadily declines (see chart). A postgraduate education increases the attractiveness of men while decreasing the beauty of women. These generalizations are both predictable and depressing. However, they are patterns, and consumers care about actual outcomes. The aim isn’t to cater to the most significant number of people, but rather to be discovered by the right individual.
One aspect of internet dating that seems to be causing some confusion is race. According to Josue Ortega, a sociologist at the University of Essex, the internet would increase the number of mixed-race couples by opening up a racially diverse pool of partners in areas where social classes are more homogeneous. He has shown that in a society where people are strongly associated with those of their race but only marginally so with people of other races, even random connections to total strangers would rapidly increase the percentage of interracial marriages. Mr. Thomas’s analysis has brought him to the same conclusion. “Suddenly, people are meeting in this new bar, the internet, where everyone can get in…, and there is a lot of diversity.”
However, not everyone in the bar receives the same treatment. The different ways in which race and gender connect are visible on the internet dating scene. Users of all races find Asian women more attractive than Asian men, often much more so; according to Ms. Bruch and Mr. Newman’s research, black men were referred to more than black women.
I never wave bye-bye.
While many users appreciate the increased variety that the online environment provides, they also become conscious of its drawbacks. The endless choice can become a burden for those who gain popularity through apps. Gratitude Tinder serves two purposes for Mark, a 24-year-old massage therapist from Lagos, Nigeria. She seeks clients and romantic partners (much like your correspondent found people on Tinder when researching this piece). Tinder is vital for marketing her company, she claims, but her love life on the app has turned sour. She says, “I don’t feel like I’m the same person I used to be.” “I go out to dinner, fuck, and that’s it.”
Others describe how exhausting it is to trawl through countless matches, go on frustrating dates with some of them, and then have to drag themselves back onto the internet when it doesn’t work. There’s even a feeling of isolation. Dating on the internet is decoupled from other social interactions that would soothe a shy or spurned heart in the offline world; love’s vicissitudes can be more difficult when separated from the background of a club or church hall.
It’s tempting to believe that people who have been unhappy due to online dating will quit. On the other hand, people do things that make them miserable all of the time, and companies often benefit from their misery. Existing users of dating apps continue to keep using them and maybe even pay for new functionality. Desperation isn’t always their foe, and achieving domestic bliss isn’t always their ally.
On the other hand, new services seem to be searching for ways to make their customers happy. Hinge, a standard app purchased by Match in June, requires users to answer three short questions as part of creating a profile, offering conversation starters—think Tinder, but with complete sentences. Luna is attempting to develop a market for credibility. Good dating etiquette will be rewarded with Stars, an in-app currency, for sending messages to people when they are warranted, reacting to them, and behaving nicely if a date arises. These can then be used to send messages to well-known users, traded for cash, or donated to a good cause. The founders hope that by focusing on the user experience, they will keep their business goals and their users’ personal goals in sync.
There are also other topics to remember. Mr. Wang, Tantan’s manager, is concerned that 5% of his customers will never find a match, no matter how hard they swipe.
According to him, men like about 60% of all female profiles they see on Tantan, while women like just 6% of male profiles. According to Mr. Wang, the least attractive women receive equal attention levels as the most attractive men; everyone should find anyone attractive. Men at the bottom of the food chain are unrivaled. This is consistent with Ms. Bruch’s and Mr. Newman’s work. Both men and women, on average, focus on people who, according to the site’s users, are 25% more attractive than they are. That can work even for women who aren’t thought to be beautiful. Nothing works for the least suitable men. Mr. Wang says, “I don’t expect the final 5% to be that easy to support.”
But he’ll give it his best shot. Tantan is training an algorithm that will serve as a more successful matchmaker, connecting not just people who fancy each other. Still, people it thinks will have good conversations, using the data it has on its users—their images, the text of their profiles, and their biographical details—as well as their every click, like, and text message.
In “A Beautiful Mind,” a film about John Nash, he advises a group of fellow mathematicians on how to leave the bar with a girl: the trick is for each of them to go for one of the less attractive girls in the group they’re eyeing up, rather than all horning in on the prettiest; if they all go for her, their attentions will cancel each other out, and her mates, People who understand what a “Nash equilibrium” is in game theory would be irritated by this scene because it isn’t one. Nonetheless, Mr. Wang was inspired. He intends to use data from the entire market to recommend suitable partners for each person.
Tantan will benefit if this plan succeeds. Although network effects favor a dating app with more users—a factor with current apps concerned about Facebook’s intentions—it is not a significant advantage. Many people use several apps. If they use different apps to look at the same group of people and find that one consistently provides better matches, they can unsubscribe from those who don’t perform as well and tell their friends. As a result, better goods should expect to be compensated.
It can seem crass to reduce romance to number crunching. It will, without a doubt, have its limits. However, several phenomena that seem complex to humans are often revealed to be simple when viewed through disinterested data. Finding the data that does it best is the trick, and this is probably the most exciting area for dating apps to compete in: Is it the pulse on the first date, as calculated by a smartwatch? How much time do you spend on the first dates? Queues on Netflix? Is there a subway stop that you missed on your way home?
Whatever the conclusive evidence turns out to be, the experience of love will remain ineffable, and its search will be fraught with difficulties. Making the road a little easier to walk, on the other hand, seems to be likely to improve many lives and make many people happy. That isn’t a snide remark.